by Marco da Silva

A UPS Technology Review: how much has changed?

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) with battery backup, is an electrical apparatus that is used to provide emergency power to a load or process where the input power source or mains power fails. This technology has been around for almost 50 years and has become a staple in our everyday business needs.

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Although much has changed since the early low-frequency ferro UPS systems that were first introduced in the 1980s, much remains the same: industries need a constant reliable power supply when the primary supply fails.

From the low-frequency Stand-By Ferro UPS, which was once the dominant form of UPS in the 1-15KVA range and which has since come and gone, we’ve moved to modularised, or modular-type UPSs and hot swappable UPSs. Once this point in technology was reached, there wasn’t much to do except improve on the design. In response to this, manufacturers started offering all sorts of tactics and modifications to offer the customer the best possible energy efficiency, in order to maximise the return on investment with the least amount of capital expenditure. Low-frequency UPSs, while older technology, still exists because there is a specific need for it, in industrial applications that require six-pulse or twelve-pulse UPS systems.

The modular UPS has been around for at least ten years, and the only changes we’ve noticed here are when manufacturers have taken measures to improve efficiency. Change, as they say, is the only constant, but if so much has stayed the same for so long, is there capacity for change in UPS technology? Definitely. The next big thing that is coming in UPS technology is not so much a change in the UPS itself, but relates to the batteries associated with the UPS system, and the way the UPS system interfaces with the world around it.

Change is battery-driven

Having already started trickling into the market slowly, we are seeing a shift toward using lithium ion batteries, which will have a significant impact for the customer. Lithium ion batteries offer more value to the customer in terms of being able to better mitigate the main risk associated with running a UPS and addressing the biggest vulnerability—the batteries. Currently most UPS systems make use of Valve Regulated Lead Acid (VRLA) fully sealed, maintenance-free batteries. While there are different types of batteries – gel-type, lead-crystal batteries – they’re all essentially the same as lead acid batteries. This move to lithium ion batteries is significant and is in response to the fact that South Africa is moving from a stand-by environment, to a cyclical environment because the power supply received from our national utility is not reliable or consistent.

Given this change in environment, these lead acid batteries which were designed for a standby environment, are getting cycled more often, which results in a need to replace them more frequently. No longer are these batteries lasting for 5-10 years like they should. Instead they’re having to be replaced as early as 12 months after purchase. Lithium ion batteries are not subject to battery memory and the depth of discharge on a lithium ion battery is significantly superior to lead acid and that is the biggest difference.

With lithium ion, the number of cycles could be double or triple that of a normal lead acid battery and even in a cyclic environment, lithium ion batteries will last longer. Furthermore, it is possible to discharge this battery significantly lower, and it’s much quicker to recharge. This is a good thing because businesses don’t want to be recharging batteries and have another power failure, as they won’t get the full backup time out of the batteries.

While there is still about 18 to 24 months to wait before these batteries start making waves in the marketplace, it’s safe to say that this change will happen in order to give the customer significant savings long term and real risk mitigation in terms of early-life failure.

Change is connection-driven

As with everything else the internet has changed the way we do business, especially how we operate our businesses. As the Internet of Things (IOT) gets underway and more devices are connected to each other, we are able to do more. There is a huge benefit to implementing additional sensors, transmitters and connectivity within a UPS system, in order to make use of its inherent ability to communicate, log data and send alarms. By adding an intelligence module to a UPS, it becomes possible to extract and manage that information. By drawing reports and intelligently controlling the environment the UPS is protecting, the business owner has more control over every aspect of that environment—from batteries, to power, to energy, faults and risks.

It is more than possible that in the next two to three years, UPSs will start to integrate full turnkey power quality analysis, data logging analysis, automated email or SMS alarming, automated programmable services updates, and the like. In short, the changes made in UPS technologies will not relate to the topology of the technology itself, but rather will rethink and re-energise the ways in which the UPS fits into and works with the environment around it.

Marco da Silva, Managing Director at Jasco Power Solutions

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Issue 39